Harvey Weinstein! Evil coroporate merging! These are the two biggest movie stories of the year. Don’t let that distract you from the fact that there were loads of great films this year. Included in this post is my top 10.
As always, this post consists of:
- Movies I Liked More Than Most
- Movies I Liked Less Than Most
- Honorable Mentions
- My Top 10 Movies of the Year
10 Films I Liked More Than Most
These films had some very vocal critics but I liked them enough.
- The most divisive studio film of the year is probably Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER!; which I found to be both a gripping statement on the artist as a figure and a eulogy for a modern world already cursed by environmental decay, all thinly disguised as an on-the-nose biblical farce. It’s the most Aronofskyish of all Aronofsky movies.
- When you give an accomplished visual stylist like Zhang Yimou a big VFX budget to play with, you hope to get something as fun as THE GREAT WALL; a beautifully colored and shot monster epic whose maligned racial undertones were completely misunderstood by people who didn’t bother to actually see the film. The white man doesn’t save the East, the ways of the East save the white man.
- Imagine Blow if Blow had any real energy, that’s AMERICAN MADE. Doug Liman directs the film with the perfect sense of looseness, squeezing every ounce of star power he can out of Tom Cruise. Another solid film from a director-actor duo that’s quietly become one of Hollywood’s best.
- Ridley Scott, very hit-or-miss this century, continues to flex his sharp design muscle with films like ALIEN: COVENANT, which isn’t as concerned with asking questions as Prometheus was. It’s a by-the-numbers creature horror flick, but it works because of Scott’s visual ideas and the efforts of a strong cast.
- The best film from a McDonagh this year (more on that later), WAR ON EVERYONE is brash in the best sort of ways. Everything about this film -from the soundtrack cues to the slapstick violence to the performances- is simply hilarious.
- I’m an admitted sucker for modern Malick, so SONG TO SONG brought all the visual poetry and intentional inchorence I could’ve asked for. It’s meant more as an atmospheric experience than a standard story.
- You’ve seen this sort of movie a hundred times before. Hell, you may have already seen it this year with Alien: Covenant, but that doesn’t stop LIFE from being an entertaining deep-space horror. The A-list cast leans into genre in their performances and it’s visually stimulating for most of its runtime.
- More movies like VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, a colorful epic unafraid to embrace camp, please. The first half of the film is genuinely interesting. And the second half isn’t nearly the disaster critics say it is. This has the makings of a cult classic much like some of Besson’s other films.
- I totally understand why many will refuse to ever watch GHOST IN THE SHELL, given the obvious whitewashing with its casting and lack of loyalty to its source, but I gave it a look one night, and it really works on its own terms. It’s a visual treat and the action sequences really pop.
- Finally coming out after numerous delays and re-edits, TULIP FEVER certainly is a bore by some’s standards. But for folks like me who love nothing more than watching beautiful actresses chew scenery in lavish period pieces, there’s enough in this Alicia Vikander melodrama to entertain.
10 Films I Liked Less Than Most
For various reasons, I didn’t see what everyone else seemed to in this group.
- I love stupid, entertaining movies that only concern themselves with pleasing the senses. But KONG: SKULL ISLAND couldn’t even get that right, mostly due to its insistence on balancing elementary anti-war sentiments with bland CGI action. What could’ve easily been a fun but forgettable popcorn movie is instead stuck in my head for all the wrong reasons.
- DETROIT is a story that deserved to be told, I’m just not sure Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, with their bare-bones observational style, were the right people to tell it. The middle chunk at the hotel is impressive, visceral filmmaking. Unfortunately, everything surrounding it is so lacking in insight that the violence here almost plays like torture porn for bigots.
- I can see why THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI has resonated with so many. It’s passionate. It’s very well-acted. It’s 2017. But what could’ve been a more challenging film based on its exceptional first act reverts to something else entirely, something lesser. It’s no coincidence that the moments in this film that are being called problematic are also its most boring.
- I’m still not over how dull BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is. The big musical numbers were lifeless and the chemistry between the titular characters was nonexistent. The biggest non-Star Wars hit of the year is a nice piece of nostalgic business, but a poor movie musical.
- As a well-intentioned inclusive crowd-pleaser, THE BIG SICK is something I certainly wanted to love. But it goes through almost an hour before any real story comes up. Stand-up comics always think audiences are way more interested in the lives of stand-up comics than we actually are.
- All of the power in MUDBOUND comes from its unique and relevant historical setting, not anything the film actually does. Strange structural and editing decisions distract from what’s a very good ensemble. The first hour of the film is a chore to get through.
- BABY DRIVER is Edgar Wright’s worst film. His stylistic well quickly runs dry, yet he insists on having his lead dance and hum along to the soundtrack through the entire movie. Such verve makes it impossible for the film’s more serious moments to register, and the supporting cast of criminals are too thinly-written to provide a compelling foil for Baby.
- Perhaps I just didn’t “get” PERSONAL SHOPPER, which I found to be a disjointed and empty film full of unearned pretentions, despite Kristen Stewart’s best efforts. And I usually love Assayas!
- For a film that attempts to ask what it means to be human, BLADE RUNNER 2049 felt oddly engineered and never truly alive. It lacked the spontaneity of the 1982 classic. Beautifully framed and constructed sets don’t add up to much when they’re in service of such an overlong, empty story.
- The first half of WONDER WOMAN is exceptional, boosted by strong chemistry between Gal Gadot & Chris Pine and wise use of period detail. It’s also refreshing to see a superhero excited about being a superhero, as opposed to being a brooding bore. But then Patty Jenkins’ film becomes a Zack Snyder film, complete with an overabundance of slow motion and a clusterfuck finale full of unintelligible digital imagery.
These are films I really loved but just couldn’t squeeze into my top 10.
- Logan Lucky should’ve been a huge hit. The cast goes all-in and the results are hilarious, while typical tight filmmaking from Steven Soderbergh keeps things moving at all times. This is best film of 2017 with “Logan” or “Lucky” in its title. Soderbergh is the only one allowed to make heist films now. Those are the rules.
- With the somber and beautiful WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, Matt Reeves concluded the best franchise trilogy of the decade perfectly. Its predecessor was about how lack of communication can lead to war. This one is about how war creates an even greater lack of communication.
- With THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, Yorgos Lanthimos eases up on the satire, instead choosing to disturb as a means of provocation. His script never gives into your blood lust until its final moment. His images stick with you. He is a master and even his more minor films, like this one, are unique pieces of cinema that blend the art house with genre.
- THE SHAPE OF WATER is a fairytale for adults, one that wisely considers sex, something too often ignored in cinematic love stories. The film’s core love story is much stronger than its allegorical efforts, but Guillermo del Toro’s ability to direct the eye with lighting and framing choices keeps it stimulating even during its lulls. He is a masterful visual storyteller.
- Beautifully filmed and intimately acted, THE FLORIDA PROJECT sees Sean Baker making a movie about contrasts. Kids living on society’s margins manage to stay upbeat despite the overwhelming sadness of their situation. It’s almost an American version of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Brooklynn Prince is going to be a star. She is adorable.
- It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a carnally engaging drama like RAW, which is full of metaphor but also very entertaining in the moment thanks to a breakout lead performance from Garance Marillier. This is the type of film that makes you think about the choices made, ushering in a fascinating new auteur in Julia Ducournau.
- For all the grumbling about how Netflix is bad for cinema, OKJA is the type of movie studios don’t make anymore; a smart, quirky, and reasonably high-budgeted experiment. The film is beautifully executed all-around, with many action sequences being simply jaw-dropping. It’s Bong Joon-ho, after all.
- While I expected STRONGER to be a typically mediocre inspirational film riding the back of an actor, it’s not that at all. It honors its subject without making him out to be a saint. David Gordon Green is in complete command of nearly every scene, using minor details to drum up emotion. Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany do awards-worthy work.
- IT COMES AT NIGHT is a horror film that understands what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. It uses smart pacing and cinematography to build psychological terror. For such a young director, Trey Edward Shults has shown remarkable control over the course of his two features. He’s a talent to watch closely.
- If not quite as refreshing as its predecessor, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is more aesthetically bonkers. Who says action film can’t have mise-en-scene every bit as effective as prestige films? These movies have their own unique form that’s already being borrowed by others. I hope they make a hundred more John Wick movies.
My Top 10 Films of 2017
or, my FAVORITE 10 films of 2017
Notable films not yet seen: The Post, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Phantom Thread, All The Money In The World
#10) The Beguiled
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
Distributor: Focus Features
Sofia Coppola choosing to put her own spin on a 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel and to a lesser extent a 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood was certainly an interesting decision. The result is a borderline feminist film crafted from source material that’s been called sexist in the past, and a better film than Siegel’s version. Set during the Civil War at an all-girls boarding school run by Martha (Nicole Kidman), an enemy soldier (Colin Farrell) is found by one of the girls and taken in so they can tend to his wounds. Sexual tension, taboo at the time, quickly arises and personal rivalries develop between the women, leading to a simple but engaging thriller that draws great drama from its scenario and subtle comedy from its exploration of old worldviews and gender roles.
Coppola is a smart filmmaker. She’s never over-directed. In The Beguiled, she understands what she has and gets out of the way. The period detail, candlelight, and gorgeous country setting allow her camera to find beauty without having to manufacture it. Her exceptional cast allows scenes to linger without needing quick cuts in order to move. Kidman is a treasure as always. Farrell embraces his role as a sex object, playing up his handsomeness with a dark flirtatious vibe. Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning continue to be two of the best working actresses people don’t talk about enough. Coppola asks a lot of her cast considering the film takes place in one location and gets its tension from character rather than plot, but they’re all up to the task.
The Beguiled is the rare corset drama that asks relevant questions and manages to thrill by more modern, impatient tastes. Coppola (with help from her usual editor Sarah Flack) achieves this by condensing the story to its bare bones, packing loads of thematic heft into a film that runs just 93 minutes. Despite that run time, this is far from a minor work. Balancing era-sensitive sexual repression with situation-sensitive eroticism, daring to explore both the female libido and male incubus archetype…this is a film as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.
#9) Get Out
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield
Distributor: Universal Pictures
For all the drama surrounding its category placement at the Golden Globes, perhaps the greatest strength of Get Out is that it truly is undefinable by conventional genre. The film works on numerous levels. It’s a unique cocktail. There’s never been anything quite like it, and that played a large part in making it such a smash hit (it grossed $254M). With just one film under his belt, Jordan Peele, formerly known mostly as a sketch comedian, has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most interesting new auteurs.
Peele could have easily kept the basic plot of the film but set it somewhere in the south with card-carrying, hood-wearing klansmen. But his choice to surround Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) with affluent, educated, liberal types added an additional layer of critical satire to the film. A likely Oscar nominee, Get Out is extremely subversive. It openly mocks the same type of people that it’s asking to vote for it. For much of its runtime, it looks at the black experience through the lens of a man constantly annoyed by woke white people’s lack of self-awareness and attempts at coming off as not racist. It becomes more traditional horror in its final act, but the majority of the film sees Peele building tension and sparking laughs through the minutiae of a “Mom & Dad, this is my black boyfriend” scenario.
It’s almost not believable that Get Out is Peele’s directorial debut considering how carefully made it is. He understands the power simple sound editing can have. The sound of a spoon tapping on a teacup or glass of iced tea becomes more terrifying than a gory murder. He’s not too on-the-nose with his symbolism. The secluded upstate New York location is shot with images inspired by slave plantations, but the characters never comment on it. When Chris escapes, he does so by plugging his ears with cotton from a chair. This is daring as mainstream filmmaking gets, and its gigantic success with both critics and audiences alike hopefully sparks a mini-revolution in the cinematic ranks.
#8) Good Time
Director: Ben & Josh Safdie
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Jennifar Jason Leigh, Ben Safdie, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress
Distributor: A24 Films
Good Time is relentless. It’s pure, kinetic cinema. The script wastes no time and manages to repeatedly surprise, but it earns those surprises rather than use them as crutches. What is in theory a dark New York crime thriller is shot with a neon-tinted flare, scored with pulsating synths that make the entire film feel like one big chase. This is a film that simultaneously hearkens back to classics while suggesting a fascinating new direction for independent cinema.
Connie (Robert Pattinson) and his mentally-handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie) rob a bank. Naturally, things go wrong when a dye pack explodes. Connie escapes but Nick is arrested. Connie then attempts to get Nick out of custody, and shit gets crazy. The bond between the two carries the film despite them each spending much of it on their own. It takes a delicate authorial touch and commanding performance to make us root for a protagonist who continually makes the wrong decision, and that’s exactly what happens with Connie. He’s a lot like Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, hopelessly trying to do something criminal out of love, only the love he’s capable of giving is not the kind that’s needed. There’s tragedy in that, but Good Time doesn’t ruminate on it. It’s too busy pushing forward and entertaining you.
This is another strong turn from Pattinson, who’s quickly breaking out of his brooding teenage vampire shell and establishing himself as one of the great working character actors. Safdie is good too, managing to tiptoe the thin line between sensitivity and exploitation when it comes to playing a character with a mental handicap. Even as the film ventures into the semi-ridiculous, it stays grounded thanks to these performances.
#7) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillain, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff
Guardians 2 is the type of blockbuster sequel that will age like a good single-malt, the Marvel equivalent to The Empire Strikes Back. It doubles-down and improves on everything that made the first film a surprising smash hit. It’s funnier and written to seem more improvisational. It has a more colorful visual palette. Its themes of childhood neglect and unorthodox families are explored more deeply now that they don’t have to spend time introducing so much. James Gunn’s script throws an awful lot at you for a popcorn movie, but it all works.
The one-liners and visuals are really just coating for a story that sees all its characters coming to their own moments of subtextual catharsis. I mean, this is a movie that ends with a brash space raccoon moved to tears because he realizes he has a family and will be loved at his funeral. Referential moments that could take you out of the movie -”I’m Mary Poppins y’all”, the soundtrack- are rooted in characters relating to one another. This film splits up the team for most of its run, a decision that proves wise as it allows each character to get to where they need to go emotionally on their own. Then, being a superhero film, they come together at the end for a spectacular action climax.
The most surprising development is how the movie uses Yondu (Michael Rooker), who was really just a throwaway character in the first one. His entire nature is deconstructed, and his moment of redemption is moving. It’s probably the most emotionally impactful death in any of these movies. Guardians 2 will expose itself as a heavy movie the more you watch it, but that’s not to say it still isn’t entertaining on the most simplistic terms. Baby Groot dances to “Mr. Blue Sky”, after all.
#6) Call Me By Your Name
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothèe Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Luca is a sensual filmmaker. He understands how to block and shoot scenes in order for them to function as a cinematic aphrodisiac. Even scenes that aren’t inherently sexual on their own are done this way. It’s tantalizing to watch, and with Call Me By Your Name, he finally has a story emotionally captivating enough to make his scenes be more than just aesthetic pleasures. The film chronicles the romance between young Oliver (Armie Hammer) and even younger Elio (Timothee Chalamet) over the course of a summer in Italy. The summer love comes full circle, from the initial spark to the physical manifestation to melancholic thoughts at its end. It’s all handled beautifully and delicately.
Now, being a same sex romance in the 1980’s, it’s a bit taboo and therefore the two attempt to keep it a secret. But screenwriter James Ivory wisely keeps the narrative focused on this specific relationship rather than the larger gay experience at the time. That makes the film very emotionally affecting. Anyone who has ever experienced first love will see parts of themselves in this story and these characters. Chalamet gives a powerhouse performance, hitting every note. He’s timid when the script calls for it, in full bloom when he needs to be. He has a very emotive, innocent face. The chemistry with Hammer is palpable.
This is also a beautifully constructed and shot film, one that’s both very 80s but also classical thanks to some antique-heavy production design. Each sun-drenched frame is as pretty to look at as the last. You quickly fall under its visual spell, important for a film about limited love. I’ve still only seen it once but am looking forward to diving back into it to pick up on subtle character beats and visual cues that I surely missed. It’s so carefully made, I assume it’s a film that rewards repeated viewing.
#5) Beach Rats
Director: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge
A poetic drama about self-discovery, repressing self-truth, and going through the motions….Beach Rats is an unexpected gem that opens your eyes to the talent that is Eliza Hittman the same way Moonlight did for Barry Jenkins last year. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) mostly lives an empty life. Things suck at home. He spends much of his time doing drugs and causing mischief at the beach with his friends. Despite having a lovely new girlfriend, Frankie leads a double life of sorts where he meets up with older men from the internet and has sex with them. Frankie doesn’t consider him gay though. While he of course hides this from everyone in his life and that deception drives the plot, this is really a film about Frankie’s internal conflict.
Not all coming-of-age films should be optimistic, Beach Rats argues. It’s an achingly human film that never tries to do more than it’s capable of. So many things don’t happen here when you expect something to because of the way other films have trained you. Dickinson’s performance is captivating despite the sparse dialogue that accompanies the film’s lyrical style. 16mm photography with a touch of grain gives Hittman’s film a perfectly imperfect look. Her camera tends to observe things anti-cinematically, not quite documentarian, but as if the camera was just one of the people in the frame, moving a little bit but mostly just there.
The film slowly moves to an unsettling climax that makes everything that happened before it seem even messier, and therefore more authentic. Hittman doesn’t claim to have resolutions for the conflicts of her character because many of them simply aren’t answerable. Not every coming-of-age story should end with the subject learning who they really are and becoming comfortable. Some people never do. I sure as hell haven’t yet.
#4) A Ghost Story
Director: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Distributor: A24 Films
A somber, meditative film about memory and loss, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a different type of haunting. C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a married couple. C is killed in a car accident. The rest of the film is mostly C, as a ghost, observing M grieving and attempting to move on. This subverts the idea of ghosts as C is the one who’s haunted. Lowery’s images and loose narrative create a hypnotic atmosphere that’s as impactful as it is confounding. There are moments in A Ghost Story that you won’t fully grasp, which is the point to a certain extent.
Rooney Mara is one of the best actresses working right now and she’s as good as ever here, and Affleck, covered in a sheet the entire time, gives a heartbreaking performance. Emotion also comes via one of Lowery’s usual collaborators, composer Daniel Hart, who’s score here is a character itself. As A Ghost Story hits its final act it incorporates themes of wasted time and spirituality, but these ideas never seem over-ambitious because of how seamlessly they tie back to C & M.
This is simply one of the most original movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve come to expect greatness from Lowery after Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon and was pleased to see him outdo himself in such experimental fashion. There’s a large amount of lived-in emotional maturity here, shocking considering Lowery made the film at the age of just 34.
#3) Lady Bird
Director: Great Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges
Distributor: A24 Films
It’s hard for a film to hit every emotional note imaginable without feeling disjointed or manipulative. Not just the ability to make the viewer laugh and cry in equal measure, but to do so in service of a story that will make even the most cynical fall victim to its spell. This requires a sharp script, pitch-perfect performances, and understated direction that styles itself without ever seeming too filmic. Enter Greta Gerwig’s fantastic debut, Lady Bird.
It’s no surprise that Gerwig was capable of writing such a script given her previous work as an actress and writer. But for a first-time director to be in such complete command of her own storytelling ambitions is almost unheard of. Even the great directorial debuts are messy, albeit beautifully messy. Not Lady Bird though. Lady Bird feels like an experienced auteur making their opus. It’s insightful about adolescence without ever playing like an all-knowing lecture, as many coming-of-age films tend to do.
Saoirse Ronan is the perfect muse for Gerwig. She keeps topping herself. It won’t be long into the film before you feel like you’ve known Christine (Lady Bird) for her whole life, and understand her motives while still seeing some of them as petulant. The same goes for her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, who seems destined to win an Oscar for the role. The greatest strength of the film is how real every character feels. You’ll root for everyone to kiss-and-makeup while realizing that such tidiness probably isn’t what’s best for these people.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Distributor: Warner Bros
Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker, obviously. With Dunkirk, his finest effort yet, he channels his ambitions into a tight structure while tossing aside the lofty high-concept narrative ideas that have hindered some of his prior work. The film recreates the famed Dunkirk evacuation of WWII with a wordless structure, telling its story with pure imagery rather than exposition. It’s almost the anti-Interstellar. Three narratives -land, air, and sea- are balanced and cut together perfectly. Every moment is made to feel urgent. More of a survival/escape film than a standard war film, Dunkirk uses every cinematic gift in Nolan’s arsenal to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Nolan’s set pieces, benefiting from actual machinery of the era, are not just vast but also framed to create a sense of impending doom. He wants you to see just how vulnerable these men are and what angles they can be attacked from. Whether it be a crowd of men crammed onto a pontoon or below deck of a carrier, there’s always danger on a large scale. Hans Zimmer’s score is perhaps his best yet. It functions almost as a narrator.
The Dunkirk evacuation remains remarkable because of the everyday heroism involved. Dunkirk shows us that without ever hollywoodizing it. The cast is a true ensemble. Nobody is favored. The larger story never bends to convenience one character. This is Nolan’s best film; his first to realize that large scale art doesn’t have to be conceptually difficult.
#1) The Lost City of Z
Director: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
Distributor: Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street
There’s always been an old-school flavor to James Gray. The Lost City of Z, based on the true story of a man sent to survey the Bolivian jungle in the 1900’s who becomes obsessed with proving the existence of an ancient civilization, is paced and shot like the adventure pictures Hollywood doesn’t seem to make anymore. But it’s also loaded with modern thematic heft. Percy Fawcett (the aforementioned surveyor, played by Charlie Hunnam) and his claims of this civilization challenge European historical notions rooted in racism. His well-intentioned obsession with proving it becomes (possibly literally?) the death of him, and his son.
Hunnam gives a dynamic performance. You respect his ambition while loathing some of his decision-making. It becomes clear relatively early on that his efforts will ultimately prove fruitless. His descent into the jungle, lushly filmed by the great Darius Khondji, becomes just as much about stubbornness as it is about exploration. This is a complex film that asks you to consider a great deal of subtext. But Gray’s script, and his actors, are smart enough to keep that subtext from hindering the film’s entertainment value. This is a long film and, at times, a slow film. But it’s never a boring film.
Its old-school merits likely played a large part in The Lost City of Z not finding much box office success or awards traction despite strong reviews from NYFF last year. I do believe this film will become a cult classic amongst cinephiles though. It’s too good not to. I strongly encourage you to give it a watch if you haven’t. I rest my reputation as a movie geek on its brilliance. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year.